House Democrats end controversial consultant banMarch 9, 2021
House Democrats’ campaign arm is officially ending its controversial ban on political consultants who work with candidates challenging sitting Democratic incumbents in primaries, clinching a major victory for progressives.
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), the newly installed chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, officially reversed the policy on Tuesday morning. He initially pledged to nix it during his campaign for the chair role and finalized it this week.
Though it was in place for fewer than two years, it still stymied some liberal primary challengers and incensed the left, which celebrated its end.
“It’s an enormous win,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said in a recent interview, before Maloney’s decision was formally announced, noting the move would open “a door for our party to leverage strength from all parts of it.”
“The escalation and aggression against the progressive wing of the party with an explicit forward-facing ‘blacklist’ created a lot of dissuasion against candidates even considering grassroots organizing firms,” she said.
Enacted in 2019, the new policy forbade the committee from contracting with or recommending to any House campaign a consultant or firm who worked to primary a sitting Democratic incumbent. It spurred an unexpectedly strong backlash — but was popular with members who are more prone to primary challenges and don’t want their party apparatus, to which they pay dues, to enable their opponents.
The ban had long been an informal practice at the DCCC, but codifying it sent progressives into a tailspin. Coming just months after Ocasio-Cortez felled a member of Democratic leadership in 2018, the groups that propelled her to Congress claimed it was an establishment attempt to blunt their movement.
“We have primaries to make sure we have the best and the brightest in every party,” said Rep. Marie Newman (D-Ill.), who successfully ousted a Democratic incumbent last year even after the new policy forced several of her consultants to quit suddenly. “So primaries should be unencumbered by outside forces.”
Maloney reversed a policy created by his predecessor, Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), in a somewhat tacit acknowledgment that it had backfired. It created enmity within the conference and a fierce clash with members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, including Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the then-co-chairs. Ocasio-Cortez, a powerful force among the party’s liberal wing, was so outraged that she declined to pay any dues to the committee and instead donated directly to candidates.
The rule was seen as an overture by Bustos to two key constituencies in the Democratic party: moderates who helped win the majority and feared challenges from the left; and the congressional Black and Hispanic caucuses, which have both seen an influx in primary challengers in recent cycles.
The CBC, in particular, made a show of banding together to block progressives from ousting one of their own: Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), who faced a challenger backed by a coalition of progressive groups. Beatty won, but now-former Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), a CBC member whose family has held his St. Louis district for decades, lost to now-Rep. Cori Bush, a Black Lives Matter activist.
Not everyone lauded Maloney’s decision.
“I think that’s inappropriate,” said Democratic Rep. Jim Costa, a member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition from Central California, in an interview before the decision was finalized. Costa easily beat a progressive challenger in 2020.
“We’re supposed to be a team,” he said in an interview last week, adding that members shouldn’t help primary other members. “It’s the same principle as far as I’m concerned. We’re either a team, or we’re not.”
Still, DCCC remains a powerful gatekeeper and retains a significant amount of leverage. Even without an explicit rule in place, it can still choose to which vendors it doles out millions of dollars of TV and polling contracts for its independent expenditure arm. And it will have a large role in steering top challenger campaigns toward certain consultants and firms.
“No one should be looking for work around here if they want to go after one of our members at the same time,” Maloney told POLITICO last month. “But I don’t think the blanket ban ever made sense. And we’re gonna replace it with a new approach.”
During her tenure, Bustos included a question on a form for firms that wish to be on a DCCC-approved vendor list. Consultants had to attest that they understand the “DCCC will not conduct business with, nor recommend to any of its targeted campaigns, any consultant that works with an opponent of a sitting Member of the House Democratic Caucus.”
The 2022 version of that form, which goes live Tuesday morning, will not include such a requirement.
Yet contentious primaries might be unavoidable in the 2022 cycle. Redistricting will almost certainly place members in new territory and make them more vulnerable.
Primary challenges — and the amount of support they receive or don’t receive from top firms and strategists — have been a thorny issue inside the caucus for years. Some successful challengers have won with the help of prominent Democratic pollsters or media consultants, including Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), who ousted incumbent John Tierney in 2014 and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), who beat Mike Capuano in 2018.
Part of progressives’ argument against the ban was that it led to less competition and deprived other candidates of more diversity and talent in the ecosystem of groups that work with campaigns.
“It ultimately, I think, works against especially newer vendors, vendors of color, people who might have just come up more in the last decade in the business and who might have been taking more diverse types of clients,” Pocan said in a recent interview. “It’s good for the process to not have some arbitrary rule out there.”
The committee has been able to increase the amount it spent with diverse vendors, jumping from $4 million in 2016 to $28.6 million in 2020, according to DCCC data. A new policy for 2022 also requires approved vendors to attend a diversity, equity and inclusion training offered by the committee.
Despite the ban, liberals still notched important victories. Three Democratic incumbents lost in primaries; two were longtime members who succeeded their fathers in Congress. Clay lost in Missouri, and Newman felled Rep. Dan Lipinski, a Blue Dog Democrat who opposed abortion rights and voted against Obamacare. A third, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the House Foreign Affairs Committee chair, lost to now Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a middle-school principal backed by progressives.
And Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas),one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress and a vocal supporter of the blacklist, came within 3,000 votes of losing to Jessica Cisneros, a 26-year-old attorney backed by Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Some consultants embraced the so-called “blacklist,” even formed a website, dcccblacklist.com, to connect candidates with firms who were not afraid to flout the DCCC rules.
“There just aren’t a lot of people who want to do Democratic consulting that hold the views of Bill Clinton and Bruce Reed anymore,” said Sean McElwee, co-founder of the Data for Progress, a liberal polling outfit. (Reed is a former chair of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and currently serves as a White House aide to President Joe Biden.)
McElwee’s firm polled in Bush’s race in Missouri and for Bowman in New York, but said Data for Progress lost a client in Texas, Julie Oliver, who was running against GOP Rep. Roger Williams thanks to the committee’s new policy. The group polled for Oliver in June before being replaced by a DCCC-approved vendor.
“Treating progressives like they’re something that must be crushed,” he said, “rather than partners who want to build a better party that is more durable is not a healthy tactic.”
Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.